September 13, 2006

Sonata For Viola

Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): **½ (your rating may rise according to your knowledge of Russia and classical music)

Sonata For Viola presumes an immense amount of knowledge on the part of the viewer regarding - for starters - Dmitri Shostakovich and Russian history. Since this 75-minute documentary supposedly covers the life of the famous composer, I expected a certain level of "groundwork" information that would lead me into an understanding and appreciation of Shostakovich and the world in which he lived. While the movie will not deliver this to the uninitiated, that's not to say it isn't a somewhat enjoyable experience - particularly if you are familiar with the films of Alexander Sokurov (Father & Son, Russian Ark), who, via editing, shaped the work of the original filmmaker Semyon Aranovich into his own more elliptical, impressionistic view.

Early on, the narration and visuals seem a bit askew and the commentary comes and goes at odd times, leaving out more helpful identification than it includes. Isn't that Joseph Stalin in the middle of the photograph? Yes - but no one ever lets the cat out of the bag. (Evidently, this 25-year-old movie had to be kept from the hands of the KGB and was initially banned upon its completion. At times you'll feel like the filmmakers are deliberately obfuscating to avoid the censors.) Russians will no doubt relate to much of what they see (and what they donít) in the manner of those who've had to live under dictatorial terror; the rest of us can guess and wonder. The composer's opera "The Nose" plays a large part here, but we get little background on it; images from old films and newsreels fuse in a succession that seems near-phantasmagoric; odd juxtapositions mingle with the more prosaic (at one point the narration mentions a phone call being made, and we see...yes, a phone). Of course, the phone may conjure subdued terror to Russians; we're just beginning to understand a society in which the populace - finances to phone calls - is being monitored by its government.

Much of this is set to Shostakovich's music, which makes it more enjoyable, and we do learn of the connection he shared and fondness he felt for other musicians such as Ivan Sollertinsky - though nothing of his denunciations by the Communist Party. Toward the end comes a lovely section that combines visuals and music with the words of Anton Chekov. All in all, worth a watch for classic music buffs and those interested in Russian history and culture.

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Posted by cphillips at September 13, 2006 4:47 PM | TrackBack